The Post-Millenials, or Generation X at the End of the World

I do not read Revelation regularly. I’m scared of it. Not of the actual text, […]

Tim Peoples / 2.2.17

I do not read Revelation regularly. I’m scared of it. Not of the actual text, mind you — I’m scared of being overwhelmed by half-remembered theological positions and theories about eschatology. I’m skeptical that anything in the text is meant to be a prediction — thief in the night, etc. — but I’m neither biblically sophisticated nor spiritually courageous enough to actually read and contemplate what “the end of all things” does or should mean to me. Essentially, I’m stuck in a state of indecision and irony (i.e., my position is I don’t have one). My prophet clearing the way in the wilderness for the coming of sincerity is Douglas Coupland.

Coupland, best known for popularizing the term Generation X in his debut novel of the same name, has written a number of insightful books depicting young adults battling their irony in order to recover the spiritual awareness their materialistic parents rejected. In Girlfriend in a Coma, a young woman, Karen, falls into a coma. She wakes up 17 years later (1998) to find her friends destroyed by her absence and the world around them. Not long after, she predicts to the day a quiet apocalypse: the whole world’s population, over a few days, simply falls asleep and never awakes.

A clever shift in verb tense makes plain Coupland’s intention to write a work of prophecy (think Minor Prophets, not crazy preacher). About half the book depicts the decline of Karen’s friends, and the world, in the past tense, but her awakening marks the transition to the present tense. Karen’s awakening and her prophecy of the sleeping apocalypse seem sudden and unexplained to the world that experiences it, but the reader knows that the floundering through alcoholism, drug addiction, and superficial careers depicted in part 1 is a microcosm of the world’s brokenness. The implication is that we now live in the lost, soulless world that Karen wakes up to.

Of course, fiction set in the moment before the apocalypse is usually about the world’s brokenness and insufficiency and often suggests that we did this to ourselves (think The Day After Tomorrow). What sets Girlfriend in a Coma apart from other works in this subgenre is its eerie resemblence to our own time, despite being written so long ago. Karen opines on the world she awoke to:

There’s a hardness I’m seeing in modern people. Those little moments of goofiness that used to make the day pass seem to have gone. […] I mean, nobody even has hobbies these days. Not that I can see. Husbands and wives both work. Kids are farmed out to schools and video games. Nobody seems to be able to endure simply being by themselves, either—but at the same time they’re isolated. People work much more, only to go home and surf the Internet and send e-mail rather than calling or writing a note or visiting each other. They work, watch TV, and sleep. I see these things. The whole world is only about work: work work work get get get . . . racing ahead . . . getting sacked from work . . . going online . . . knowing computer languages . . . winning contracts. I mean, it’s just not what I would have imagined the world might be if you’d asked me seventeen years ago. People are frazzled and angry, desperate about money, and, at best, indifferent to the future […]

So you ask me how do I feel? I feel lazy. And slow. And antique. And I’m scared of all these machines. I shouldn’t be, but I am. I’m not sure I completely like the new world.

I don’t have perfect memory of 1998, but I’m pretty sure I would have disagreed with her assessment at that time. Most people did not have cell phones (let alone smartphones, which wouldn’t come for another eight to nine years), and the internet was underdeveloped compared to now (see The New York Times’ site on March 10, 1997, below). Technology surrounded us, but I don’t think I would have believed we had a crisis of disconnection-via-connectedness all those years ago. Karen’s description might even have read as too sincere, too fussy, too luddite. But there is no denying that Karen’s depiction of 1998 would also describe the world now. It’s so apparent that I don’t feel the need to cite a source.

Not only does 1998 seem quaint by comparison now; it seems a bit of a golden age. The internet was available but not universal; I wasn’t annoyed at the work of dialing up and talking to people. But Coupland, through Karen, saw beyond the superficial marches forward in technological progress. He saw the spiritual and social chaos that was present in 1998 below the surface. That is why Karen’s predictions seem so prescient to me, reading in 2017. I see myself in Karen’s prophecy: constantly seeking entertainment and finding it so often that I use internet blocking software on my iPhone during work hours. I spend whole days in a smartphone-headphone-laptop haze. Right now, I am writing in a quiet house at 5:30 a.m., and I am exerting energy to keep writing rather than listen to the next bit of The Magician King.

Many pre-to-post-apocalypse works drive toward a unifying, judgmental law. The survivors must live in the new order with new respect for greenhouse gases or whatever (sorry, I really hated The Day After Tomorrow). There is some of that in Girlfriend in a Coma; Karen and her friends are told by the ghost of their dear departed friend Jared — who narrates most of the last quarter of the book — that they can return to before the awakening and its apocalypse. They will need to live differently, though, to stay in that imperfect, though not horrifying, world. They need to continuously ask questions, take nothing around them for granted, avoid the easy malaise that led them to this point:

[Jared:] “Your lives will be tinged with urgency, as though rescuing buried men and lassooing drowning horses. You’ll be mistaken for crazies…Your eyes will always feel as if you’ve been staring at the sun, your bodies seemingly aching to cool them by staring at the moon. There aren’t enough words for ‘transform.’ You’ll invent more.

“We’ll go crazy!” Hamilton shouts.

“No. You’ll become clearer and clearer.”

“No—we’ll go totally effing crazy.”

“Haven’t you always known that, Hamilton? At the base of all of your cynicism across the years, haven’t you always known that one day it was going to boil down into hard work? Haven’t you?…In your old lives you had nothing to live for. Now you do. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Go clear the land for a new culture—bring your axes, scythes, and guns. I know you have the necessary skills—explosives, medicine, engineering, media knowledge, and the ability to camouflage yourselves. If you’re not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world — if you’re not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order — then you’re wasting your day.

It’s easy to read this passage and then conclude, as I did momentarily, that Coupland is just offering us another self-help gospel-lie, a false hope that we are all able to meet the standard of the law if only we tried hard enough. But then I thought about where this happened in the larger narrative: When Jared re-enters as a dead man and starts telling the story on behalf of his friends, he is a true ghost speaking to the last bored, pathetic remnant of the human race. Coupland is sincere in his diagnosis of social sickness in 1998, but he isn’t really providing a cure. The magical-realism quality of the book from Karen’s awakening onward points to the impossibility of relief from the consumerist pressures around us. If it really got that bad, if we really faced the apocalypse by smartphone, there would be no ghost of Jared to save us and send us back in time. In a very real way, we don’t get second chances.

And yet…I often feel, when reading Coupland — non-religious as far as I know — that he expresses the essentials of Christianity better than most believers. Jared is a postmodern, teenage Jesus, dying before his dear friends so that he can lead them back to the only salvation they can imagine: a world where their poor decisions haven’t fully poisoned their lives. He makes them a new creation: all of them return with the knowledge and experience they have gained in the sleeping apocalypse, Jared heals addiction and mental disability, and he gives one of his friends a child to be born in the new past. Everyone will gain except for Karen and Jared; the newly gifted will return to a broken world with a job to do, but they will have so many gifts.

Works righteousness may be hopeless, but believing in a pure and entirely noble stance toward a broken world is equally so. The latter is the stance of many apocalyptic narratives, which posit that building military strength or stopping global warming or listening to conspiracy theories will save us from the fate depicted in the film/book/whatever. Girlfriend in a Coma offers a poignant fantasy that turns on disaffected Gen-Xers being supernaturally reborn without earning this privilege. Jared’s charge to question and engage the world around them seems impossible to the reader, but that is because none of us gets the opportunity to return to the past reborn and wiser after seeing the absolute end of human error. Coupland isn’t writing a prescriptive text, a way to be righteous in the nonreligious Gen-X context. He is writing us a fantasy about characters who receive the second chance we hope for.

I would welcome the opportunity to live through the end of the world, return to my own time, and ask clarifying questions to everyone around me about the causes of their eventual decline and death. But I don’t get to do that. I move forward through time regardless of the intrusion of sin and decay around and within me. I am grateful, therefore, for the revelation of God that I’m scared of so often. We are promised therein that we will be made whole, even if we never get around to fixing the disaster promised by speculative fiction.